In 2005, Rihanna released the music video for “Pon de Replay,” her first-ever single. She was 17 years old. The video, directed by Little X (now known as Director X), was shot in a nightclub in Toronto and featured a group of dancers alongside the singer, who was dressed in a silver belly top with baggy jeans and a light blue dress.
How times have changed. Rihanna, now 28, has added multiple awards to her name, broken dozens of records, and sold millions of albums since then. This Sunday, she’s also receiving the 2016 Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award at this year’s MTV VMAs.
Ahead of the award show, we talked to Director X, who recently worked with Rihanna again on the video for her Drake-assisted No. 1 hit, “Work.” X, a Canadian director known for his early work with Sean Paul, recalls what it was like working with the singer then and shares stories from the set of both “Pon de Replay” and “Work.”
On his first impression of Rihanna: “What I really remember was the final shot of the video. We shot her in a blue dress, doing a performance shot. That’s when I was like, ‘Oh this kid’s got something. We shoulda just shot a straight performance video.’”
On the biggest difference between working with Rihanna on “Pon de Replay” and “Work:” “She was 17 when I first worked with her, and now she’s a woman. She definitely carries herself that way. She would do these little practical joke when she was on set [for ‘Pon de Replay’]. Now, it just feels very much like you’re dealing with a queen.”
On what she was like on set of each video: “[‘Pon de Replay’] was her first video, and it was for a big record company. She was not running the show. Now, she has her own team, and it’s completely her operation. [For ‘Work’], her creative director and I were constantly talking, constantly sending references of things Rihanna liked.”
On his favorite Rihanna video: “The one that Melina [Matsoukas] did with the Chris Brown lookalike—‘We Found Love.’ That was great. They won a Grammy for that for a good reason.”
On shooting “Work” and “Pon de Replay” in Toronto and featuring some of the same dancers: “They’re both songs that had a West Indian feel to them, so to do it over here…We have a lot of West Indians [in Toronto]. It was just a really fitting, cool way to do it. There were even kids who did her first video and also did ‘Work.’ It felt like a return—even for Drake. He wasn’t in ‘Pon de Replay,’ but he grew up in Toronto and knew all those kids.